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Gertrude Stein and Jose Saramago

In at least two occasions from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein challenged for her unique writing style. T.S. Eliot called a revision to her “grammatical solecisms” and discussed why Gertrude Stein used them. The conversation was said to be a solemn one and it was all about “wool is wool and silk is silk or wool is woollen and silk is silken.” Earlier someone had been fascinated with what he had read in manuscript of The Making of Americans. But he pleaded for commas! Gertrude said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that “one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath.” Even this sentence itself, like many others in her writing, are a bit too long.

Which reminds me of Jose Saramago, Nobel-laureate Portuguese writer, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago’s experimental style often features (very) long sentences, at times more than a page long as in Blindness. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs match the length of entire chapters by more traditional writers. He completely does away quotation marks to delimit dialogues—all the dialogues are embedded in the prose—when the speaker changes Saramago capitalizes the first letter of the new speaker’s clause.

I don’t consider the lack of commas and embedded dialogues “grammatical solecisms” as T.S. Eliot had staidly designated, so long as the writing is clear and the thought conveyed. What about you? What kind of writing style might discourage you from reading a book?

16 Responses

  1. In Spanish (and I am assuming Portugese), long sentences are the norm. To me, as I read them, they seem to be run-ons, but it’s not.

    I am noticing that English writing novelists are using fewer commas now. I like commas; sometimes I have to reread a passage. A sentence without commas can sometimes have two meanings.

  2. I didn’t know Saramago wrote plays- have you read any of them?

  3. I think commas and the conventions for their use are very useful for clarifying text and meaning. I would argue, however, for a general amnesty where style of punctuation is concerned, especially when there are valid artistic principles involved. Gertrude Stein had such a fertile mind, was so perversely engaging, we can forgive her idiosyncratic mannerisms with syntax and punctuation. Just think of Pigeons on the Grass Alas from the libretto to Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts.

    By the way, Mortimer Adler has shared his experience of hosting Stein and Toklas for dinner. Gertrude rather dominated the conversation (to Adler’s annoyance) and hailed forth on many subjects that evening. Alice, on her way out the door, said something like (and this is approximate): “Gertrude was especially wonderful this evening. She said things tonight which will take her ten years to fully understand.”

    As far as discouragement in reading, I’m willing to work through all kinds of impediments–up to a point. I get discouraged when I’m floundering in a sea of esoterica or impenetrable language and can’t continue on my own without help. Some day I may even brave Joyce’s Ulysses, which strikes me as a book I could never understand without the help of specialists.

  4. I have yet to read Saramago or Toklas, but I sort of like commas and periods. I have a feeling witout them that if my mind wandered for even a moment I would be lost. However, I think I probably use too many commas when I write. I need to give both authors a try!

  5. I think the usage of commas is solely up to the writer, how he/she wants to pace the movement o the action or dialogue. I love Saramago’s work, but at first, his writing style threw me for a loop. Now I understand his choices, and the stories flow.

  6. Matt, I love this posting. As I think you know, I am a fan of Saramago, the unconventional genius. You have given a very good description of his style.
    Your posting makes me think about what I like best about great writing.
    What kind of writing style would discourage me from reading a book?
    I think I would have to say that what bothers me most about inferior writing is inferior DIALOGUE!
    Whenever I have to stop and say, “People do not TALK like this!”
    What amazes me about Saramago is the control he maintains [over dialogue] without the benefit of conventional punctuation/quotation-marks.
    And just today I started reading George Eliot…. Middlemarch.
    I’m finding her to have a wonderful control of dialogue.
    Even when NARRATING about dialogue….. she is IN the moment…. and this is something I appreciate.
    Here is a group of people around a table early in chapter 2, and Mr Brooke has been talking a mile a minute… meanwhile, we know that Dorothea and Casaubon are in the beginning stages of being enamored with one another… and Eliot tells us:

    Mr. Brooke was speaking at the same time, but it was evident that Mr Casaubon was observing Dorothea, and she was aware of it.

    As simple as something as that sounds to the reader.. to me, it bespeaks a good control. It makes me give myself over to the author. It makes me say, “OK, if you are so there, around this table, that you noticed that… I can believe that I’ve been allowed to listen in…”

    And I read on….. smelling the gravy at that table.

  7. Gertrude once complained about how her writing, being so clear and understandable, was not being published during the earlier days of her career. Maybe editors then were keen on her not using commas to separate thoughts in long sentences. She wrote this autobiography of Alice Toklas in Toklas’ own voice, which affirms her claim that she knows Alice Toklas better than Alice Toklas knows herself! Gertrude can be too much at times!

  8. I love Saramago and his style.
    Personally I find a book more challenging when I don’t have clear drawn lines between dialogues and narrating, when there isn’t a comma (or God forbid! a dot) between one character’s thought and another;s.
    Although these books are harder to read I find them more fulfilling and once you get into them you can’t escape their charm.

  9. Isabel:
    So it actually makes sense that Saramago doesn’t heed the rules of punctuation. He’s Portugese. The Portugese language is similar to Spanish.

  10. Ted:
    Neither have I. That’s one more thing to look up at the next bookstore visit. 🙂

  11. Greg S:
    “Gertrude Stein had such a fertile mind, was so perversely engaging, we can forgive her idiosyncratic mannerisms with syntax and punctuation.”

    I think Gertrude Stein’s style reflects her complicated mind. She’s just going all over the place, with 50 things spurring off her head. Even if she might have committed this “grammatical solecisms” her thoughts are still very clear on paper.

  12. Danielle:
    I highly recommend Blindness by Saramago. Give him a try. 🙂

    It takes a bit of time to be inured to Saramago’s style. But he always takes the simplest, ordinary occurrence and develop in the most intriguing story.

  13. Cipriano:
    Inferior dialogue is what makes Da Vinci Code bad writing. Good story, but poor writing.

    I have never read Middlemarch. But since I’ve always had good luck with your recommendation, I’ll give it a go. 🙂

  14. John:
    You’re right. The book is more about Gertrude Stein than Alice Toklas!

  15. Booktamer:
    I certainly agree with you. The embedded dialogues take time for the eyes to get used to, like walking into a pitch dark room. His imaginative power keeps me going.

  16. […] Gertrude Stein and Jose Saramago […]

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